When stressed out, muscles in the neck, shoulders, and jaws tense up. Panic often manifests as breathlessness. Anxiety results in digestive issues. Trauma leads to nightmares and flashbacks.
“When we experience mental health challenges or undergo stressful or traumatic events, it can lead to various physical manifestations,” says Dr Jyoti Kapoor, founder-director and senior psychiatrist, Manasthali, a mental health and wellness platform. “The mind and body are deeply interconnected, and what affects one can impact the other,” she explains.
Interestingly, this mind-body connection is paving for a new mental health treatment, which involves focusing on the physical being to address mental concerns. “Somatic therapy, which focuses on the integration of mind and body in the treatment of mental health issues, is gradually gaining recognition,” says Dr Shambhavi Jaiman, consultant psychiatrist at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram.
‘Somatic’ means ‘of the body’. According to the experts, it is a therapeutic approach, which recognises the interconnection between the mind and body. “It focuses on how psychological issues and emotional traumas can manifest physically and aims to address and resolve these bodily manifestations through various techniques,” says Dr Jaiman.
For example, breath-work includes the physical act of breathing and the mental act of focusing on the breath. Experts recommending deep breathing when stressed out, anxious, or panicking now makes a lot of sense, when seen from this lens of mind-body connection.
Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk is often credited with popularising the term after his book The Body Keeps the Score topped The Times’ best-seller list during the Covid pandemic. However, the therapy form, which works on the belief that the body stores trauma, fear, despair, sadness and helplessness, is gaining steam both internationally, and in India, as per experts.
“Somatic therapy is gradually gaining recognition and popularity in various parts of the world, including India. Basically, it aims to help individuals process and release emotional and psychological distress that might be stored in the body,” says Dr Kapoor. “At Manasthali, we use somatic therapy as a component of overall patient management in the form of expressive art forms like dance movement and action drama, yoga and physical exercises,” she explains.
Types and efficacy
From something as simple as breath work to the little-heard Hakomi, somatic therapy is of various types. For example, intentional breathing, which involves the act of breathing while focusing on the breath, is said to give insight into your emotions and nervous system. Then there is EDMR, short for Eye-Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing. This interesting approach involves bilateral, or left-right, stimulation, such as eye movements, physical taps, etc. During an EDMR session, the patient recalls a traumatic memory while undergoing bilateral stimulation. It is done to alter the way memory is trapped in the brain.
Other types include somatic experiencing, sensorimotor psychotherapy, dance/movement therapy, and body psychotherapy. “Yoga and meditation can also be considered forms of somatic therapy due to their emphasis on mindful movement, breathwork and connecting with the body. As a psychiatrist, I often encourage patients to explore somatic practices like yoga and meditation as complementary tools for managing stress and promoting mental well-being,” says Dr Jaiman. Notably, “the choice of somatic therapy depends on individual preferences and needs,” she highlights.
While it is yet to be studied extensively, research has found somatic therapy to be effective for addressing trauma and issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EDMR, specifically, has been found to be effective for patients suffering from anxiety, addictions, eating and mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), pain and sexual dysfunction, as per a 2021 review in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
According to experts, the issues and ailments somatic therapy can help with include:
Trauma and PTSD: Somatic therapy can aid in processing and releasing trauma stored in the body, reducing the impact of traumatic experiences on an individual’s mental and physical well-being.
Depression: Here, the technique can “assist in reconnecting with the body and alleviating the physical symptoms associated with depression, such as fatigue and muscle tension,” explains Dr Jaiman.
Stress and anxiety: It can help individuals become more aware of bodily sensations and manage the physical manifestations of anxiety and chronic stress.
Chronic pain: “Somatic therapy may complement pain management strategies by addressing the psychological and emotional factors contributing to chronic pain conditions,” the expert says.
Some of the other issues are body image issues and eating disorders, mood disorders, somatisation disorders and relationship and attachment issues.
While somatic therapy “offers a holistic approach to mental health by integrating the mind and body, allowing individuals to explore and heal from psychological issues through embodied experiences and sensations, it is essential to work with a qualified somatic therapist who can tailor the treatment to address specific concerns effectively,” recommends Dr Jaiman.
Who should consider
According to experts, somatic therapy can be beneficial for those with psychological issues and physical manifestations, or those with difficulty expressing emotions verbally. Having said that, “individuals with severe psychiatric conditions, physical limitations, or discomfort should approach it with caution or avoid it,” cautions Dr Jaiman. “When opting for somatic therapy, seek a qualified therapist. It can complement other treatments, but willingness and consultation with a mental health professional are crucial,” she adds.
While the awareness and prevalence of somatic therapy are growing in India, it might not have been as widespread or well-established as some more traditional forms of psychotherapy, says Dr Kapoor.
Cognitive behavioural therapy, or talk therapy, remains the most employed technique. While both CBT and somatic therapy address mental health issues, some underlying differences exist:
Focus: While in somatic therapy, the emphasis is on the body in processing emotions and trauma, CBT focuses on cognitive and behavioural aspects.
Approach: Since the emphasis is on the body, somatic therapy uses bodily sensations and experiences as the entry point for processing emotions and addressing trauma, whereas CBT primarily targets cognitive distortions and behavioural patterns.
Time taken: While CBT is well-structured and has a shorter term, typically consisting of a specific number of sessions, somatic therapy can vary in duration based on the individual’s needs.
“Both somatic therapy and CBT have demonstrated effectiveness in addressing various mental health concerns, and the choice between them often depends on the individual’s preferences, needs, and the nature of the presenting issues,” says Dr Kapoor. “The effectiveness of each approach can vary from person to person,” she adds.
Speaking on the prospect of somatic therapy becoming a mainstream body of treatment over time, the expert highlights that the “mind-body connect is eternal and holistic and there is no denying that any treatment that allows for respecting this connection is the future of healthcare and wellness. Therefore, somatic therapies as components of holistic health are already very much part of clinical treatment regimes.”
- Mental health issues can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters, leading to changes in bodily functions
- Stress can also hamper the digestive system, causing issues such as stomach-ache, indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome
- Stress and tension often cause muscle stiffness, headaches and pain
- Mental health issues have a detrimental impact on sleep and can cause disturbed sleep or insomnia
- Chronic stress can trigger the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, which when remains constantly elevated can impact metabolism, immune function and cardiovascular health
- Chronic stress can weaken the immune system. It is because the constant release of cortisol can suppress the immune response, making it tougher for the body to fight off infections
- Chronic stress and anxiety can also lead to elevated blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart-related issues
- Check the qualifications of the therapist while opting for somatic therapy
- Since each person’s issues and needs are different, seek a therapist who can address specific concerns and goals
- If you are undergoing medical or therapeutic treatment, discuss it with your therapist
- Healing requires both time and effort. Be patient, remain committed to the therapeutic process